Iran stepping back into global fold

More than two decades after Iran's revolutionaries dumped their American-backed monarch and created an Islamic republic, this country's ties with the US remain in a deep freeze.

But with the rest of the world, Iran's diplomats are constructing an impressive array of relationships, capitalizing on Iran's strengths as an oil-rich nation that sits at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Iran's diplomatic reawakening is partly the outcome of this country's internal debate over political, economic, and social reforms. But it is also part of a global shift toward openness and economic liberalization that many nations are adopting in order to participate in an increasingly global era.

"Iran's foreign relations have become less ideologically motivated and more pragmatic with the coming into power" of President Mohamad Khatami, says Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, a political geographer. Mr. Khatami was overwhelmingly elected to a second four-year term earlier this month.

It is hard to overstate the diplomatic contrast between the early years of the Islamic Republic and today. Take two of Iran's most important neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once said it would be impossible to forgive Saudi Arabia for backing Iraq in its long war with Iran. Today, Iranian and Saudi leaders consult on issues such as oil and the Persian Gulf.

Iran has long seen Turkey as a country of Muslims corrupted by secularism and relations with the US and Israel; in May, Iranian and Turkish officials signed a security agreement. Relations between the two countries are hardly perfect, but they are improving.

Even Iranian officials acknowledge that they once viewed other countries in the region with arrogance and superiority - Iran's revolution, in their view, outshone all other attempts to create an Islamic government.

Today, notes Sadegh Kharrazi, a deputy foreign minister, "We cannot regulate our actions according to emotions."

"We are in need of relations with other countries," explains Mohsen Aminzadeh, who is also a deputy foreign minister and is considered a close adviser to Khatami.

Iran is one of the most strategically located countries on the planet. With the Caspian Sea to the north, Iraq and Turkey to the west, the Persian Gulf to the south, and Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east, the term "crossroads" is an understatement. But it's not a friendly neighborhood.

The Iranians are wary of the Russian colossus, even though the Russians are helping Iran acquire weapons and develop a nuclear program. Elsewhere in the area, the Pakistanis have nuclear weapons, there is constant friction with Iraq, and the Iranians nearly went to war with the Islamic regime in Afghanistan.

The Iranians' first foreign need is to shore up their sense of security. The second is to begin to encourage foreigners to invest in Iran's industries - oil first among them - and to share some of the technology that has passed Iran by.

"We see Europe, in the absence of US relations, as our key technology partner," says Siamak Namazi, a business consultant in Tehran.

The key facilitator of this process is Iran's president. Although Iran was once known as a country led by Shiite clerics bent on exporting their revolution through any means available, Khatami has impressed international audiences with thoughtful speeches on the need for a "dialogue of civilizations." In his first term, he visited France, Germany, and Italy, and some key countries outside the European Union - China, Japan, and Russia.

But pragmatism has not completely outweighed passion. Iran remains one of the Middle East's most stalwart opponents of Israel. Khatami is rarely so animated as when he discusses the Palestinian cause.

Many Iranian conservatives resist openness and liberalization - reformers in parliament are having a hard time winning clerical approval for a new law on foreign investment - but they are also sensitive to the need to improve the economy.

Most of the politicians and clerics who opposed Khatami in the recent election called for economic reform. While Iranian officials accept the fact of globalization, they resist any notion that it should take place under the guidance of a single power or result in global "unification."

This language - echoed in Asia and other parts of the world wary of US domination - is a veiled reference to the great gap in Iran's foreign policy: the lack of any warming with the US.

"Americans must eventually come to realize that for the last 25 years we have lived on our own and we have proved that we can live without America," says deputy foreign minister Kharrazi. In the meantime, he adds, the US has "thickened the walls of mistrust" between the two countries, by maintaining economic sanctioning, criticizing Iran's human-rights record, and using its influence against Iran at the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.

Improved relations, adds his colleague Aminzadeh, "depend on the actions and behavior of the US government."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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